Sunday, November 26, 2017

Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism

“Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism” is the longest and most thoughtful essay in Isaiah Berlin’s book, The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas. Berlin introduces Maistre as an Enlightenment era philosopher, who propagated counter-Enlightenment ideas and presaged a future in which fascist regimes come to power.

A man with pessimistic view of the world, Maistre believes that men are evil by nature and a totalitarian regime is necessary to preserve order and save man from man. He holds that it is necessary for men to suffer because suffering alone can save them from falling into the bottomless abyss of anarchy and destruction of all values.

His political principles have been summarized by Berlin in these lines: “There can be no society without a State; no State without sovereignty, the ultimate court of appeal; no sovereignty without infallibility; no infallibility without God. The Pope is God’s representative on Earth, all legitimate authority is derived from him.”

But I don’t think that it is appropriate to see Maistre as a philosopher. There is nothing philosophical in his ideas. He is an outcome of bad philosophy and not the creator of bad philosophy. He lusts for political power because he believes that a ruthless totalitarian state is necessary for enforcing a moral way of life.

Today Maistre is nothing more than a historical curiosity. Berlin acknowledges that Maistre’s works are no longer regarded as important but he thinks that Maistre must be studied because he represents the “last despairing effort of feudalism and the dark ages to resist the march of progress.” The excerpts from Maistre’s works (which Berlin has included in his essay) give you the feeling of listening to a man who hankers for absolute political power.

Here’s an excerpt from Berlin’s essay: “[Maistre] taught that natural sciences were tissues of coherent falsehoods, that the desire for individual liberty was a form of original sin, and that all possession of absolute secular power, whether by monarchs or popular assemblies, was founded on blasphemous rejection of divine authority, whose sole representative was the Roman Church.”

Here’s another:

“While all around him there was talk of the human pursuit of happiness, [Maistre] underlined, again with much exaggeration and perverse delight, but with some truth, that the desire to immolate oneself, to suffer, to prostrate oneself before authority, indeed before superior power, no matter whence it comes, and the desire to dominate, to exert authority, to pursue power for its own sake – that these were forces historically at least as strong as the desire for peace, prosperity, liberty, justice, happiness, equality.”

And another:

"Thee doctrine of violence at the heart of things, the belief in the power of dark forces, the glorification of chains as alone capable of curbing man’s self-destructive instincts, and using them for his salvation, the appeal to blind faith against reason, the belief that only what is mysterious can survive, that to explain is always to explain away, the doctrine of blood and self-immolation, of the national soul and the streams owing into one vast sea, of the absurdity of liberal individualism, and above all of the subversive influence of uncontrolled critical intellectuals – surely we have heard this note since. In practice if not in theory (at times offered in a transparently false scientific guise) Maistre’s deeply pessimistic vision is the heart of the totalitarianisms, of both left and right, of our terrible century."

Five years after Maistre’s death the leaders of the Saint-Simonian School began a project to develop a reconciliation between the ideas of Maistre and Voltaire. But this seems like an illogical project. How can Voltaire, who stood for liberty, be reconciled with Maistre’s vision of a slave society? It is worth noting that Maistre regarded Voltaire as the devil incarnate.

But Berlin points out that “modern totalitarian systems do, in their acts if not in their style of rhetoric, combine the outlooks of Voltaire and Maistre; they have inherited, particularly, the qualities which the two have in common. For, polar opposites as they are, they both belong to the thought-minded tradition in classical French tradition. Their ideas may have strictly contradicted one another, but the quality of the mind is often exceedingly similar.”

This essay offers an insightful portrait of Maistre, but its title is misleading because it does not offer any new prospective on fascism. Berlin’s focus is only on Maistre’s ideas. He does not explain the relationship between Maistre’s ideas and that of the fascists.


The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas
Isaiah Berlin
Pimlico, 2013 edition

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